Friday, September 26, 2014

A Feminist Analysis of "Pirates of the Caribbean"

Pirates of the Caribbean is, by far, my favorite current franchise. Though the fourth installment was decidedly weaker than the original trilogy, all four films had witty, intelligent screenplays, fabulous swashbuckling set-pieces, oodles of character actors (which I sorely miss in most Hollywood fare), and everything of a piratey nature that one could wish. From a feminist point of view however, POTC is not nearly as satisfactory.

The first issue with the films is an issue for nearly every Hollywood blockbuster. The original trilogy has only four female speaking parts, two of which disappear after the first film and are given no character development, and the fourth film, meant as the first in a second trilogy, has two (plus Judi Dench's cameo and a singing mermaid). These films have enormous casts, with dozens of speaking roles. Women are severely underrepresented and this is, in and of itself, a major issue. One could argue that historically there were far fewer female pirates than male, but that argument is frankly moot given that in the POTC universe, there are cursed Aztec treasure that can turn you into the undead, damned sailors who become "fish people," a pagan goddess, mermaids, the Fountain of Youth, and various other forms of the supernatural and magical. History is not relevant here. The films could have been much improved by having greater gender diversity among the cast, but this is symptomatic of a larger trend across all Hollywood filmmaking, particularly films with bigger budgets.

In the original trilogy, the main female protagonist (and the primary romantic interest for the male characters) is Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley). She is a supreme example of the bad-ass heroine, Hollywood's pandering and yet still misogynistic answer to complaints of sexism. Elizabeth objects to wearing a restrictive corset and becomes an equal political and military player in the complex power struggle among the various factions of pirates, English colonial authority, and the East India Trading Company. She also becomes adept at fighting both with swords and guns. However, she does all of this, despite the fancy speeches, in order to marry her true love Will, become a housewife on a Caribbean isle, and produce babies. Any strength, whether physical, tactical, or political, deployed with such a goal is disappointingly de-fanged. After three films in which she develops physical strength, leadership ability, and quite a bit of political cunning, would it have been too much to ask that Elizabeth actually make use of those skills? Elizabeth may not conform to the Georgian ideal of the perfect woman, but she certainly does conform to current standards.

Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris), the human incarnation of the goddess Calypso, is an even more problematic character. She has been bound in human form by her human lover Davy Jones as revenge for her failure to keep their scheduled tryst. As her justification, she says, "It's my nature." This implies that this powerful female being is bound by her nature, denying her agency and justifying Jones's actions, a virtual enslavement that prevents her from acting according to her own desires. Enormously powerful, capable of controlling the seas and storms, the goddess Calypso is represented as fickle, capricious, dangerous, and motivated by revenge and jealousy. As such, she incarnates male fears of female power.

The two remaining female characters of the original trilogy both disappear after The Curse of the Black Pearl. The first is Elizabeth's maidservant (Paula J. Newman), who according to the wiki is named Estrella, though she is never addressed by her name within the film. She is a largely undeveloped character who functions primarily as a female companion with whom Elizabeth can discuss her possible engagement. After the raid on Port Royal, she disappears and we never learn her fate. The second, Anamaria (Zoe Saldana), is the only female pirate in the trilogy apart from Elizabeth. Anamaria is an intriguing character, not in the least sexualized and ripe for further development, but she didn't appear in further installments, most likely because Saldana's career took off and she was no longer tertiary character material. That's a genuine pity, since the little that can be gleaned about her character is quite positive; she is a fine sailor, unafraid to stand up to Jack after he steals her boat, and integrated into the otherwise all-male crew.

The main female character in the fourth installment, Angelica (Penelope Cruz) is perhaps the most misogynistically portrayed woman in the series. Angelica is meant to be a love interest for Jack Sparrow (sorry - Captain Jack Sparrow), but their amour was supposedly born when he seduced her right before she was to take vows as a nun; it's clear that this "seduction" was rape. She is both extremely manipulative and easy to manipulate, at one point even attempting to persuade Jack to do what she wants by pretending to be pregnant with his child, and her motivations are consistently driven by her affection for her father and her "love" for Jack, both men who treat her abusively. Like Elizabeth, Angelica is handy in a sword fight and capable of managing a crew, but unlike Elizabeth, she fails to develop her own goals and never emerges as a leader.

The mermaids in On Stranger Tides are deeply problematic. They are predatory and lure their human targets into the water with sexual posturing. Most disturbingly, in order to obtain immortality from drinking from the Fountain of Youth, the pirates need to obtain a mermaid's tear. Thus, the mermaids incarnate male fears of female sexuality and subjugating them allows their male conquerors to accrue extraordinary power through immortality. The ambiguous finish of Philip (Sam Claflin), the missionary who pities and eventually loves the mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), has even less heartening implications. As he dies, she kisses him and pulls him into the water; it is not clear whether this is a gesture of compassion and love or simply her predatory instincts kicking in, but once again we witness a supernatural female character being led by her dangerous instincts.

Beyond the characters discussed above, the series has a number of prostitutes, portrayed as lascivious, jealous, and quarrelsome, and a few Singaporean servant girls, both killed during a battle between the pirates and the East India Trading Company in At World's End. Interestingly, it is unclear what the relationship between these two girls is supposed to be; when the first is killed, the second becomes enraged and tries to avenge her. Are they sisters? Lovers? Friends? There was an opportunity to make something more of these characters, though given the extensive running time of At World's End, one could understand why that wasn't explored.

So what can be done to make the upcoming fifth installment, Dead Men Tell No Tales, less misogynistic? First, add a lot more female characters and integrate them into the POTC universe in an organic way, perhaps in one of the pirate crews. It would be preferable if those characters are not prostitutes or predatory supernatural beings. Second, give the female lead her own goals, untied to loving, protecting, or being subdued by the male characters. Third, give the female lead a conclusion that isn't tantamount to enforced domestication - both Elizabeth and Angelica end their respective story-lines stuck on a lonely beach awaiting their respective love interests. Fourth, have female characters that don't have any romantic story-lines, like the vast majority of the male characters.

As yet, little information has been released about the next film, though it is possible that it will be the last in the series. Realistically speaking, it's unlikely that any of the steps I've outlined above will be taken by the filmmakers. But I'm hopeful that, at the very least, a search for fresh material might lead the POTC team to explore different options for their female characters. Dead Men Tell No Tales will be released on July 7, 2017.


  1. After reading your article I rewatched the scene where Angelica says that Jack seduced her- what makes you draw a conclusion that: it's CLEAR(!!!) that this "seduction" was rape? Seduction means making someone feel attracted to you (usually sexually)- not forcing or raping.

    And the fact what you said that historical accuracy (conserning the proportion of female to male sailors, as you wanted MORE women in the franchise) is irrelevant as POTC universe has mermaids, Fountain of Youth and etc., so you say they should add more female characters. My dear, this is just funny, have you ever heard of the "Maritime folklore"?- all these things are more real and fit better in to POTC universe than whole fleet commanded by Amazon seamen.

    The movie franchise tells about pirate adventures, more specifically Jack Sparrow. The movies are set duting the "golden Age of Piracy" (1650's- 1730's) + main protagonist being a pirate (means spending predominant amout of time in the sea) = almost 0 women, which is very logical.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I draw the conclusion that the seduction was non-consensual from two details: 1) that Anjelica expresses regret and frustration that it happened, and 2) that she says that she was innocent, which implies that she didn't have an understanding of what was happening.

      As far as more women in the franchise are concerned, I see no reason why 'historical accuracy' is demanded given, as you point out, that there are strong supernatural elements. It's true that some of these elements are based on legends that were believed by some to be true in that period, but by no means all. Historical accuracy is rarely insisted on in film-making except when it is convenient politically to those who demand it.

      As one last point, it is a misperception that there were no female pirates. There were a fair few, including ship captains.

  2. I guess you don't look at both sides to a story, the thing with feminism is that you guys see what you wanna see and nothing else. What if I said I was offended because in the last film the island people tried to force jack into marrying an uglier woman with many kids, what if I said the scene with the mermaid "killing" the priest was actually her kissing him to protect a sailor from drowning as stated by scrum on the boat and she was actually saving him, what if I said that 2 of the pirate lords were wemon which is like crazy considering the actual historical ration of men to women among pirates, that should be considered a win, oh and btw regret does not equal rape, if they did not specify that jack raped her then you have to right to suggest as much, he suduced her with his charm, which is a character attribute of his and she regretted it because he was gone in the morning and she could no longer be a nun, jack then tells Gibbs he had feelings for her but still left and Gibbs called him "low" so why don't you actually look read into it and stop projecting your own values on a good movie. Do you even care to see what the movie is actually saying or will you find fault with everything and call it some kind of "oppression"

    1. Hi Tristan, thanks for your comment. I think your belief that I "see what I want to see" is partially true: each of us approaches movies, books, music, etc. with our own point of view and that will have an impact on how we interpret them. I'm actually not at all offended by the POTC films, and enjoy them a great deal, but I don't believe that the films reflect feminist gender values. I'm making an analysis rather than a moral judgment. And it would indeed please me if the films featured a more balanced cast and portrayed women less strictly defined bt their relationships with men, but that's not necessary for me to like them. The POTC films reflect oppressive social structures that surround them; they do not themselves oppress because films are not magical agents of persuasion.

      I would also like to point out that all art and entertainment are subject to interpretation. That isn't 'projecting my own values,' but rather looking at the films, as I view them, next to a set of political beliefs.

  3. Not sure if this is still active, but I do agree with some of the points made esspecially regarding Elizabeth and Angelica's character. Perhaps they wanted to go with the tragic love aspect but it made no sense for me that Elizabeth would want to stay at shore to raise her children. Not that I doubt she would want children but more that she seeks adventure and seems quite taken with the pirate life and just a bad ending for her character arc. But I guess her and Will being out at sea together takes away that tragic sacrifice they were going for. And while I did find Angelica's character enjoyable to watch, with great banter and chemistry with Depp's Jack, it was shallow and we did not get to explore her motivations. I would have to disagree on the comments around the mermaids since it was a clear mythological reference they were borrowing from and the Calypso line about "It's my nature" seemed to be more about her as a Goddess of the Sea, and thus unable to love like a mortal.

  4. "She also becomes adept at fighting both with swords and guns. However, she does all of this, despite the fancy speeches, in order to marry her true love Will, become a housewife on a Caribbean isle, and produce babies. Any strength, whether physical, tactical, or political, deployed with such a goal is disappointingly de-fanged."

    I don't understand how wanting to be a housewife invalidates or takes away from Elizabeth's strengths and abilities?

  5. Proponents of certain movements must always remain offended and angry, perpetuating those attempting to placate them as brainless and awkward, or they fear they'll begin to lose their hard-won, political power. The unintended, psychological backlash of the "boy who cried wolf" mindset looms large, unfortunately.

    1. My experience has usually been that people who lean farther right tend to be more reactionary, and push for arguments, while those who lean left tend to be more willing to have calm rational debates.

      Also, the idea that we have power and want to hold on to it is hilarious to me, since reality tends to be quite the opposite. We have to constantly fight just to be taken seriously or even considered.

      If I misunderstood your statements, I apologize.